The Banyan presents a talky train trip in The Unexpected Man.
By Kay Kipling
One’s liking for Yasmina Reza’s play, The Unexpected Man, on for a brief run at the Historic Asolo Theater in a Banyan Theater Company production, will depend a great deal on one’s liking for talk, specifically for monologues that ask questions and reveal, bit by bit, things about the speakers. I found my attention wavering at times, while at others I was caught up in the philosophizing of the play’s two characters.
They are Paul (Robert M. Hefley), an aging writer for whom everything lately feels “bitter,” and Martha (Nona Pipes), an attractive older woman who happens to be reading one of his books, called The Unexpected Man. They are together in a train compartment on their way from Paris to Frankfurt, but for most of the play’s 80-minute length (no intermission) they do not speak to each other; they only express their inner thoughts.
His have to do with insomnia, meeting a future son-in-law and stewing over a literary friend’s comment that he seems to be repeating himself in his work; hers have to do with the death of a longtime male friend and her hesitation to speak to the writer in case, after years of admiring his books, the man in person turns out to disappoint her. That seems a slim enough premise upon which to hang a play, but Reza has succeeded before in making discursive dialogue interesting. And gradually little nuggets of entertainment are found here, as the writer begins to make up his own story about the woman opposite him, and she gathers her courage to finally open her book, thus drawing his attention and guaranteeing an interaction.
Pipes and Hefley do well enough with their roles to take us along for the journey, but this two-hander with limited action seems to virtually cry out for two well-established stars, whose acting history we know so well we can’t help but respond to their mere presence on the stage. (One thinks of what the piece must have been like a few years ago in New York with the late Alan Bates and Eileen Atkins in the parts, for example—however unfair that may be.) It probably doesn’t help that Reza’s play palls compared to earlier films about strangers meeting on a train, of which several come to mind. The payoff here doesn’t exactly hit with a bang.
The Unexpected Man plays only through Feb. 9; for tickets call 360-7399.